Major league baseball, like medical science, lacks an exact definition of death. When is a team really dead, its hope lost, its chances gone? Consider, if you will, the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Oh, yes, they are very much alive today. They are showing an overly rapid heartbeat perhaps, but that is not unusual for a team in the thick of a pennant race in September. However, less than a month ago Pittsburgh had no discernible pulse. A mirror held in front of its mouth showed no vapor. Everyone but those nit-pickers who claim a team hasn't kicked the bucket until it is mathematically eliminated agreed the Pirates were dead.
On Aug. 12 Pittsburgh was 10 games under .500 and 11� games behind Philadelphia. It had lost 17 of 21 games, the last three to the Phillies by scores of 3-1 (gasp), 15-4 (choke) and 10-1 (expire). It was all over. The Philadelphia newspapers said it, the Pittsburgh papers said it, and a lot of people on both sides of the field believed it. "I thought we were out of it, and I think everyone else felt the same way," says Pirate Ed Ott.
Well, not quite everyone. Pittsburgh's ever-optimistic manager, Chuck Tanner, didn't. "Sometimes the end can be the beginning," he said. While everyone tried to figure out what that meant, the Pirates beat the Phillies the next day 7-3. Then Pittsburgh returned home and beat Cincinnati 7-4. Mirabile dictu, maybe the Pirates were not finished after all. Sure enough, the Bucs arose from their deathbed to go on an incredible streak that, through the end of last week, had produced 19 victories in 22 games and carried them into second place, just two games back of Philadelphia. They would have been even closer if a game last week in which they were leading Cincinnati 8-3 had not been rained out in the fourth inning. Tanner has been vindicated, and baseball science is baffled.
"We weren't ready to die," Willie Stargell says. "We were like a miner trapped in a deep shaft. Everyone thought we were dead. But we saw a speck of light, and you know what a man is going to do in a situation like that. He is going to fight to get out. That's what we did. It's been a great show of character."
Even more stunning than the Pirates' recovery is that they got so far behind in the first place. During the nine seasons of divisional play, Pittsburgh has won five titles and never finished worse than third. Throughout the 1970s no team has been more often a winner or a close contender. Though the Pirates finished second the last two seasons, they won 92 and 96 games, respectively. But they got off to a miserable start this year, losing seven of their first 10 games, and even while the Phillies played with such little flair that they would have been easy targets for recent Pittsburgh clubs, the Bucs seemed incapable of righting themselves. Until last week, they had never been more than three games over .500. Nor had they been as high as second in the standings since April 27. According to rookie Pitcher Don Robinson, the reason was elementary: "We wasn't hitting much, and when we was, we wasn't pitching."
Lately, the Pirates have been doing both in abundance. The pitching has probably been the most impressive facet of Pittsburgh's play, thanks mainly to Robinson, newcomer Bert Blyleven and newly situated Kent Tekulve. Robinson, a righthander, has won six straight games to give him an 11-5 record, and Blyleven has won nine of his last 12, making him 12-8. Both of them have prospered by expanding their pitching repertoires, which had consisted mostly of fastballs and curves. Robinson has improved his slider, and Blyleven has added a change-up. "I never had the confidence to throw one before," Blyleven says, "but now that I have it, I can keep the hitters off balance and be stronger at the end of the game."
Blyleven came to Pittsburgh from Texas in an 11-player deal that also involved the Braves and the Mets. The 21-year-old Robinson had to earn his way onto the team in the spring—and he did it despite the opinion of Pete Peterson, the vice-president of player personnel, that he needed at least one year of Triple A experience. Virtually all of Robinson's previous pro experience had been in the Gulf Coast, Western Carolinas and Texas leagues.
The team's other starting pitchers have not fared as well. There is not a winning record or a low ERA among them. Particularly disheartening for Pittsburgh have been the performances of Jim Rooker (8-9, 4.50) and John Candelaria (10-11, 3.39). Only recently has Candelaria begun to exhibit the form of last season, when he had a magnificent 20-5 record. Still, Tanner predicts that "He'll be our key" down the stretch. Another pitcher who could help is Bruce Kison, a spot starter against the Braves on Friday. He pitched 7? innings of two-hit ball to combine with Tekulve for a shutout.
Tekulve, who has been with the Pirates since 1975, wears thick tinted glasses, has a protruding Adam's apple that bobs up and down his skinny neck, and at 6'4", 157 pounds, is more than vaguely reminiscent of Ichabod Crane.
But old Ichabod couldn't hum it like Tekulve. He leads the league with 77 appearances (a Pirate record), and his sinking semisubmarine pitches have brought him six wins, 28 saves and a 1.74 ERA. Last Friday night, against Atlanta, he saved both games of a doubleheader, the second time he has done that this year, and he pitched two shutout innings of a 12-inning 4-3 victory on Saturday.